Warfare involves the use of violence to achieve one’s goals by forcing other people to submit; it is ‘politics by other means’ (von Clausewitz 1989). Violence is thus a resource for controlling people. However, both violence and warfare are greatly enmeshed with meaning, just as all other forms of human action. To enter into war normally requires a cause and motivation, but apart from this basic premise variety abounds. The meaning of war can be tied to religious conviction or to a struggle for resources; it can be presented as morally justified and unavoidable or as a way to obtain glory and honour (cp. Warburton chapter 4). In one way or other the goals and motivations for warfare are embedded in a discourse that has currency at the time of action. I use the notion of discourse somewhat loosely – well aware of its complex intellectual history – to refer to all forms of meaning-giving activity as well as the products of that activity (in the form of documents and material culture). Subscribing to a Foucauldian perspective (cp. Dreyfus and Rabinow 1982), I see these meaning-giving activities as embedded in power relations while simultaneously engendering the subjectivities that define these relations. Warfare creates a context of acute contest for power that affects people’s subjectivities and identities while coping with the situation. By identities I mean more or less stable ascriptions of social position, which are established in negotiations and sometimes contestations between those who subscribe to the identity and others who ascribe it to them (cp. Jenkins 1996; Otto and Driessen 2000; Vandkilde chapter 26).
Warfare can generate war-specific identities in many different ways. In societies that do not have specialists for conducting war, men (as is mostly the case) may prepare themselves for war through special rituals, thus becoming temporary warriors able to kill. Harrison (1993) describes how this happened in a Melanesian society living on the banks of the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. The Avatip did not conceive of humans as inherently violent and their men had to undergo